The Incentive Problem With Civil Forfeiture

Civil forfeiture provides a means for law enforcement agencies to take a person’s private property without having to first prove that the person did anything illegal. Since these same agencies receive up to 100 percent of the proceeds from forfeited property, they have a powerful incentive to boost their budgets by seizing property.

In Michigan, law enforcement agencies have used forfeited cash and the proceeds from forfeited property to pad their budgets. Sgt. Dave Schreiner of Canton Township said this in a 2009 Detroit News article:

Police departments right now are looking for ways to generate revenue, and forfeiture is a way to offset the costs of doing business. You’ll find that departments are doing more forfeitures than they used to because they’ve got to — they’re running out of money and they’ve got to find it somewhere.[27]

In the same article, Romulus Police Chief Michael St. Andre noted that a 118 percent jump in forfeiture revenues was because “our forfeiture efforts have ramped up in the past few years.”[28] Although he said generating revenue was not the primary cause of this increase, St. Andre added, “[I]t is nice when we’re able to purchase things we need from arrests. I don’t have to go to the city and ask for things like bulletproof vests or computers.”[29]

Trenton Police Chief William Lilienthal echoed these sentiments: “Forfeitures are a way to help supplement your budgetary issues. You can’t supplant your budget with them, but you can supplement it. If you need something, you can utilize those funds to purchase it.”[30]

Law enforcement officers around the nation have noted similar stories. Retired Maryland State Police Narcotics Commander Maj. Neil Franklin has changed his view on forfeiture and now opposes the practice. He said his units used forfeiture to enhance their budget and finance operations, even though these revenues came from taking property from people who had done nothing illegal.[31]